Born around 1450 in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Hieronymus Bosch was a painter of religious iconography whose fantastical, almost surreal scenes have made him one of the most important artists of the late medieval era. We explore some of Bosch’s seminal works from his famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights to The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Bosch’s best known work is undoubtedly The Garden of Earthly Delights — his large-scale triptych depicting the corruption of mankind by sin believed to have been commissioned by members of the Nassau royal family in the early 16th century. It is thought that the triptych is meant to be read left to right showing first the presentation of Eve to Adam; second, the garden of the title depicting nude men and women indulging in sin; and third, man’s punishment in hell. Given The Garden of Earthly Delights’ surreal, fantastical imagery, Bosch has been described by many an art critic as a forerunner of 20th-century Surrealism.
Acquired by Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts in 1902, Christ Carrying the Cross depicts a scene from the Passion of Christ — a theme that played a great part in Bosch’s work, evident in related paintings housed at the Royal Palace of Madrid and Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. Though the work’s attribution to Bosch has been disputed, most recently in 2015 when the Bosch Research and Conservation Project declared it an imitation created by one of his followers, Bosch expert Dr. Paul Vandenbroeck has hailed Christ Carrying the Cross as “one of the most hallucinatory creations of the history of Western art.”
Another disputed Bosch work, Table of the Seven Deadly Sins was also recently labeled an imitation — a claim denied by its current home, the Museo del Prado in Madrid, ahead of its Bosch Centenary exhibition in 2016. At the center of the piece is Christ alongside the words Cave, cave dus videt (“Careful, careful, God is watching”) surrounded by depictions of each of the seven deadly sins, while four smaller scenes depict the “Four Last Things” — death, judgment, hell and glory. The earliest documented owner of the painting was King Philip II of Spain who displayed it at the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial in 1574 where it remained until Museo del Prado acquired it in 1939.
Dated to around 1490, The Temptation of Saint Anthony also hangs at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, and its subject was a common theme in much Medieval and Renaissance-era art — indeed, one that Bosch would return to in a later piece currently owned by Lisbon’s Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (see below). Here, Saint Anthony is portrayed as an elderly man meditating, representing his years spent in solitude in the desert, and though surrounded by demonic creatures bent on tempting the saint, the scene remains a surreally serene work.
Bosch’s Death and the Miser, currently housed at Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, portrays a man on his deathbed and his struggles — between the forces of good, represented by an angel and crucifix, and evil, represented by several demons — before his eternal fate is sealed. It is thought the work is part of a now dismantled triptych alongside Bosch’s Allegory of Gluttony and Lust (at Yale University Art Gallery) and Ship of Fools (The Louvre) and was inspired by the Ars Moriendi — 15th century religious texts advising Christians on “the art of dying.”
In a similar vein to The Garden of Earthly Delights, Bosch’s The Haywain is a triptych focusing on the notion of sin, from Adam and Eve’s original sin through mankind’s descent into immorality and finally to a hellish aftermath. Its central panel depicts a hay wagon and references an old Flemish proverb, “the world is a haystack; everyone takes what he can grab thereof,” while closed, the triptych’s outer panels reveal a similar scene to Bosch’s 1500 work The Wayfarer, which resides at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Dendrochronological dating places the triptych’s creation around 1515, and a second version hangs at the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
Created around 1500, Bosch’s Temptations of Saint Anthony triptych centers around the spiritual torment suffered by Anthony the Great. Closed, the triptych shows Christ’s final journey to Mount Calvary before crucifixion, while its three inner panels depict the life of Saint Anthony from his battle against temptation to his pathway to salvation as a hermit. Like The Garden of Earthly Delights, it is surreal in its inclusion of otherworldly, monstrous creatures — a sharp contrast to his earlier portrayal of Saint Anthony in a much calmer, more contemplative scene at the Museo del Prado.
The Conjuror — of which there are five painted versions and an engraving, the most reliable copy being that of St-Germain-en-Laye’s Musée Municipal collection — is a departure from Bosch’s usual fantastical, religious paintings and instead presents a wry look at the gullibility of mankind. In the painting, a group of onlookers gather around a magician transfixed by his wizardry as his assistant stealthily pickpockets the crowd’s possessions. Art historians have suggested the scene may have been inspired by the conjurers, storytellers and hawkers that frequented Bosch’s hometown of ‘s-Hertogenbosch during the late 15th century.
Another Bosch triptych belonging to the Museo del Prado’s collection, The Adoration of the Magi depicts the Three Wise Men delivering gifts to the infant Jesus after the nativity. Towering, fantastical buildings in the background of the triptych represent Bethlehem, while a curious, semi-naked character peering from the barn door in the foreground has been the source of debate for art historians for years with various accounts identifying the figure as Adam, King Herod or the Anti-Christ. Other works titled The Adoration of the Magi and attributed to Bosch reside at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum.
Bosch’s trademark phantasmagorical, religious imagery comes into play once more in The Last Judgment triptych currently housed at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts Paintings Gallery. Executed sometime in the very early 16th century, the paintings show three scenes from left to right — first, a luscious green landscape representing the Garden of Eden and the fall of man; secondly, a depiction of the punishment of sinners during Judgment Day; and lastly, a hellish landscape where Satan receives the souls of the damned. A similar triptych also titled The Last Judgment can be found at Groeningemuseum in Bruges, Belgium.